Trepidation lingers as Canada wildfire evacuees begin to return home

Evacuees who fled a massive wildfire in the Canadian oil hub of Fort McMurray begin to return home but are worried about contaminated drinking water and insurance claims. Photograph:( Reuters )

Reuters Alberta Jun 01, 2016, 05.40 AM (IST)

Thousands of evacuees who fled a massive wildfire in the Canadian oil hub of Fort McMurray are set to return home today, though concerns ranging from contaminated drinking water to insurance claims linger as the city seeks to rebuild.

More than 80,000 residents were ordered to leave when the wildfire surged into the area four weeks ago, and officials expect the remote northern Alberta city to absorb roughly 14,000 to 15,000 residents as a re-entry plan spanning two weeks gets underway today.

The blaze was a devastating blow to a community already reeling from a two-year slump in global crude prices. It shuttered more than a million barrels per day of crude production, though some facilities had started to resume operations.

"We are not going to stay, we'll go back and maybe remove some items," said Brenda Waterman, her face anxious over the unknown extent of fire damage to her home and chemical containments. "I've never experienced anything like this before, it's like a dream."

John Smith, 77, and his wife, Joyce, were bracing for heavy traffic on the main highway leading into the city, as well as what may lie ahead.

"We didn't even have time to empty the garbage," he said. "I'm going in first with a flashlight and wearing a mask, and one of us will open the doors and windows and flush the house out."

Authorities have assembled extra police and emergency officials, and are urging travelers to remain patient and orderly as they grapple with traffic-snarled roads and hobbled infrastructure.

Grocery stores and pharmacies among other local businesses were poised to re-open with reduced stocks, and power and gas has been restored to a majority of structures in the areas awaiting returnees.

About 10 percent of the city's homes were destroyed by the blaze, which has blackened more than 580,000 hectares (2,239 square miles).

Even so, some 2,000 residents who had expected to return this week were ordered to hold off because of the risks posed by debris and contaminants including "caustic" ash. 

Authorities have also issued a boil-water advisory and advised returnees to carry with them at least two weeks' worth of food, water and prescription medication. Deteriorating air quality could force officials to suddenly change re-entry change plans.

Other challenges include limited medical services and labyrinthine insurance claims, as well as wildlife that has been scavenging the desolate neighborhoods for food. 

"It won't really hit you until you walk into it," said Adam Tucker, a 50-year-old oil sands worker, as he prepared to drive home.